Goodbye Toronto Zoo elephants. We’re sorry.

The city could have done better, writes Barbara Amiel

Amy Dempsey / Getty Images

Last Monday, I went to see Toronto Zoo’s three aging African elephants who are about to leave for a new home in California—if they survive the 60-hour journey. In the late afternoon sun, the elephants were outdoors walking slowly around their barren enclosure, lifting each foot gently as if trying out new shoes. Thika, 33, the youngest, was captive-born at the Toronto Zoo. Hard to imagine 33 years of life in so small and empty a space, awakening each day to so repetitive a journey. Occasionally they looked at the spectators, eyelashes blinking in the sun. They engaged with me for just one moment and then turned away.

After the deaths of four elephants at the zoo in a space of four years, city council voted in 2011 to close down the elephant exhibit. They might have voted to allocate more funds for the zoo for better enclosures, but even in so wealthy a city as Toronto, with $20-million-plus condos and Lamborghinis all over the place, money and private donors couldn’t be found. The zoo’s 2014 budget has zero increases for operational costs plus cuts in maintenance. Wrangling over the elephants has gone on for years and now it all ends with Iringa, 44, Toka, 43, and “baby” Thika being trained to enter crates in which they will be tethered for a road trip that may kill them. Flying would have been better and there is still a chance that the Department of National Defence will relent and allow a plane to be used (not at taxpayers’ expense—The Price is Right celeb Bob Barker, an elephant saviour, has offered to contribute up to almost a million dollars for the journey) but there are only days left.

Zoos exist for a variety of reasons: conservation and research—although captive behaviour is unlikely to mirror life in the wild. Sometimes they serve political purposes: China’s giant pandas now on loan at the Toronto Zoo are a useful stage in our trade negotiations. The essential purpose of a zoo though is to allow us to see animals we would never encounter: a live Sumatran tiger of fantastic beauty or a rhino mud bathing. Zoos don’t exist for animals but for people—except possibly when people have encroached on habitat for human survival at the expense of driving a species to extinction. It’s a separate issue that a rapacious Asian demand for ivory is creating such terrible killing fields that elephants face extinction by poaching.

Creating a zoo should oblige us to make it as comfortable as we can. It is one thing to have a fish pond and another to keep fish on dry land because you can’t provide water. Africa can’t be recreated. Even in the wild, animals have to stake manageable boundaries and they cross into another pack’s territory at peril. But treatment of our elephants has been severely lacking—probably not the fault of animal keepers but of municipal keepers. One doesn’t have to be a sentimentalist to recognize an anthropomorphic response in the plodding walk of those broken-spirited mammals, their huge feet damaged by the concrete floors of winter quarters. In 1998, Tequila, one of Toronto’s former elephants, caught her leg in a “toy” in the enclosure—a tire swinging on a chain. The aid of her fellow elephants prevented a tragedy. Now a tire sits limply on the enclosure’s ground.

A zoo should not be a punishment camp. Looking at the Toronto Zoo’s naked mole-rats of east Africa, blind and hairless, banging their heads against the plastic walls of their containers trying to do what they instinctively do—burrow—is a mockery of nature in spite of the clever container design. The macaque monkey squatting alone on a beam in a sterile cage with a chipmunk and three sparrows scrambling across the floor below is no way to evoke its homeland. If you can’t effectively recreate an animal’s environment, then don’t have the animal. Take a look at the baby Indian rhino video on the Bronx Zoo page. Google Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo or the San Diego Safari Park. These are zoos that have embraced the concept of “landscape immersion,” giving inhabitants and spectators a real sense of the species’ own landscape (and a money-raising tourist attraction to boot). In a sense, a zoo is a socialist arrangement for animals: meals every day but no freedom. The jungle is capitalism but more dangerous. Landscape immersion is the best we can do in between these two states.

Elephants are one of only two or three species believed to have mirror recognition (they can identify themselves in mirrors, thus having a concept of self) and the close relationship between one another and their mahouts (keepers) is legendary. Years ago, spectators at the Budapest Zoo used to give elephants a coin, which the elephants would deliver in their trunks to the keeper who, in exchange, would give them a bun. Sometimes spectators jokily gave elephants false money and the keeper would not give out a bun. The frustrated elephants did not turn their wrath on the keeper—but scooped up sand and water to blow in the face of the deceiver. And if that same person returned years later, it’s true, they didn’t forget.

Shortly after Oct. 4, World Animal Day, Toronto Zoo’s last elephants will be gone. I don’t expect Iringa, Toka and Thika will forget their years in Toronto. I can’t speak knowledgeably about the last controversy: the worry of tuberculosis at the California sanctuary chosen by some councillors versus the American Zoological Accredited destination in Florida the zoo recommended. I only hope they survive the travel and, after all the pleasure they have given us, enjoy open fields of grasses and much sun, hanging out happily with fellow elephants. No more years of waiting patiently while municipal grandees huff and puff and blow their enclosure down. No more cement and cold and wasteland. California here we come. Toronto, we could have done better.

Have a comment to share? [email protected]

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.